Amid rising novel coronavirus cases and ongoing debates about anti-black violence and police brutality, another alarming development is making headlines. Unidentified federal officers in unmarked vans reportedly stormed the city of Portland, Ore., resulting in the surveillance and arrests of peaceful protesters. Federal officers from the U.S. Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security were there purportedly to “assist” local law enforcement. In a scathing news release, acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf detailed every alleged incident of “lawless destruction and violence” “perpetrated by anarchists” since May 29 as the reason for federal agents’ presence in Portland.
The involvement of DHS in surveilling and detaining protesters in Portland lays bare how the federal immigration regime and local policing have become increasingly entangled. During the recent marches against anti-black violence, local police within and beyond the 100-mile border zone received assistance from DHS through the deployment of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drones and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to monitor nationwide demonstrations.
This matters. Historically, partnerships between local police and federal immigration authorities have made possible the surveillance and arrests of noncitizens and U.S. citizens presumed “alien” during extraordinary moments and manufactured narratives of crisis. These collaborations have contributed to the simultaneous expansion of the carceral state and deportation regime. And now, these expanded surveillance and policing capabilities are not only targeting and constraining the lives of immigrants, but U.S. citizens increasingly caught in the immigration dragnet — such as those who were forcibly detained into unmarked vehicles in Portland.
The history of policing immigrants and U.S. citizens assumed to be foreign-born or accused of engaging in activities unfavorable to the government goes back nearly a century. In the years after the 1929 stock market crash, the United States entered a historic recession that saw record unemployment and widespread food insecurity. Politicians, journalists and members of the American public scapegoated Mexicans as the reason for the employment crisis, because of the concentration of Mexican and Mexican American workers in agriculture, one of the hardest-hit sectors.
In conjunction with county welfare officials and local law enforcement, immigration authorities decided to deport hundreds of thousands of Mexicans as a “solution” to the national crisis — often without respect for citizenship status, age, familial integrity or rights to due process. In short, people were targeted on the basis of race and ethnicity. To identify, track and apprehend migrants, the Immigration Service surveilled labor strikes that involved foreign-born workers, while welfare and labor officials entertained proposals that would have fingerprinted migrant workers with and without U.S. citizenship as they moved with their children.
The raids ended up separating families and deporting or repatriating an estimated 1 million Mexicans — about 60 percent of whom were U.S.-born citizens.